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Are you faking it? : Impostor Syndrome in Academia

Bethany Davies is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first year.

I really enjoyed my time at university but for me it felt almost like I’d got in by some whim of luck, I worked hard to get there but I still felt as though I had got in by chance. Which meant by I had even started; I feared others would think that too and I would become exposed. I’d picture that in class everyone would know something about a really important event in history that I was ignorant to not have heard of. I remember wishing there was a documentary I could watch or a book I could read that gave a brief summary of everything that was meant to be important so I could at least have a basic knowledge of everything and maybe I could fake the rest. 

Impostor syndrome doesn’t go away, it evolves and alters and that doesn’t mean it necessarily grows or decreases in time. But rather it just seems like an annoying person sat in the back of hall that occasionally shouts loud enough that you can hear it.

I think it’s important to talk about it, I’m not even sure what it could be regarded as, I don’t believe it be a disease or a form of anxiety but rather something just in its own class that to a degree I like to think everybody has. It doesn’t have to ruin your university experience, it didn’t ruin mine, but it was certainly a part of it, almost like a step in the process; go to lectures, deal with the feeling that I’m pretending I belong there, go home, revise.

I had really only became aware of it properly further in my studies and it continues when working in academia. The labels of what degree you have or what level you are and how many certificates you have can give you the confidence you need to overcome this, but it can also feed it.

There will be students starting University in the next few weeks who already feel like this, asking questions of themselves or even dreading having to talk in lectures in case they reveal what they most fear – that they are a fake and do not actually know what they think they should know by now. There will be others submitting essays or dissertations who think they have got to where they are by pure luck and chance and that this is the time where it might be made public that they are not worthy of their previous grades. There are individuals who are considered as ‘Experts’ on a particular subject by everyone but themselves as they feel the area is so vast that even they are at the basics of the subject.

Even when I received high grades, or was given positive feedback, it didn’t silence the thoughts that I somehow didn’t earn them. From graduation to working in academia, I thought that would be it, I would prove to myself that I knew enough and that I wasn’t an impostor. To an extent, it did help, mainly because I didn’t have to prove myself in an essay or a test anymore. But I still think it’s there, because I know there is always another step when you are in academia, you can keep going forever and you’ll never truly be done.

If that sounds familiar, it is something you can take some comfort in the number of others with the same feelings. It should give you comfort because it shows the inaccuracy in those intrusive thoughts, as surely, we can’t all be faking it and impostors in our academic journeys? And if we are… then there isn’t really a problem either. 

I’m not a psychologist nor would I be so impostorous to claim to be (do you like what I did there?) but I think we all know that the negative things we say about ourselves are not true, but they are a way to stop ourselves from doing something out of our comfort zone, which in itself is subjective – but that’s starting a philosophical ramble.

This blog post isn’t to make you overly aware of your fears nor do you have to address them right now. But rather, my intention is letting students know you are not alone, it doesn’t go away but it can get better if you separate how you think you feel about yourself from the reality of what you are achieving whether that be good feedback or even achieving a degree. The same way as receiving negative feedback, should not reaffirm your fears. Learn to accept that you will never know everything and that it’s okay to not know something even if everyone makes you feel like you should. Be kind to yourself in your studies, otherwise you might forget to enjoy the process of learning.

Three Tips for Uni:

There are lots of blogs, articles, and Youtube videos which offer some useful tips for going to university, yet it always appears as though students haven’t watched/read them or in the excitement of coming to university they have forgotten what they were. So in the hope that new and existing students might read this, here are my 3 tips for studying at university, and they apply to all levels:

1) READ!!!
At various stages throughout your degree you will be told that you are reading for a degree, and that is the truth. Now reading may not be everybody’s cup of tea, however it is vital to attaining a degree. Lecturers will provide reading lists for your modules, and readings for seminars, however it is vital you go beyond these lists. In first year everything is new, and the likelihood of you being experienced in reading academic journals and textbooks is pretty slim, and therefore there is a good chance you’ll be reading things that don’t appear to make much sense. That is how I remember most of my first year at undergrad! However, perseverance is key: if you didn’t understand it the first time round, take a break and read it again! Still not making sense, then read it again. Variety in source selection and reading is also key, do not feel like you have to read everything off the reading lists, or that those are the only sources you should be engaging with: get creative, mix it up! To change a phrase from a certain, loveable but forgetful blue fish: ‘Just keep reading, just keep reading, just keep reading reading reading, what do we do, we read, read…’.

2) TALK!!
University is a new experience and it is very different from school! There are no teachers who will give you the answers, but rather lecturers who will help you harness the tools in order to pursue answers. Even returning students who are familiar with the university format of being vocal in seminars still feel uncomfortable the first few weeks back as they find their rhythm. Reading is key to acquire knowledge, but so is talking. Share your ideas and understandings with your friends, colleagues and lecturers. Answer the questions put to you by others. Ask questions when you are unsure or curious. Challenge views. Seminars run much smoother for everyone when discussion takes place, and discussion cannot happen without first reading and second talking. It can be uncomfortable and unnerving, even at MSc level when you’ve had 3 years of undergrad experience of talking in front of others and sharing ideas. It is not easy, and there is always fear of being wrong or sounding silly, but that is how we learn. I’m not saying you should go around talking to everyone and anyone about anything and everything, because I most certainly would not do that. But in seminars and lectures where knowledge is the goal, talking is key.

3) ENGAGE WITH FEEDBACK!
Finally, part of university life is assessments. Now if you are successful with reading and talking, then the assessment part of university should be less scary and more positive than if you otherwise have not read or asked questions/shared ideas. A large part of assessment is writing style, and there are various resources provided by the university at your disposal to help improve your writing, and to tailor your writing depending on the assessment. But a really crucial and essential tool is the feedback given to you by your lecturers. Whilst the feedback given to you on a piece of assessment is specific to that assessment in terms of content covered, it can also be applied to future assignments and therefore should be engaged with. We spend a large amount of time constructing feedback for students, in order to help improve their work and ultimately to help them succeed but very few students engage with it. If we have said you need to engage with more sources, the likelihood is that this needs to be done for all your assessments, similarly if there is a referencing issue or writing style concern. Engaging with your feedback is one of the quickest ways to improve your work, and if you do not understand the feedback, TALK to your lecturer about it.

Studying any level at university is very different to A-levels and college: it is ultimately independent learning where the lecturers will guide you and help you attain the skills required to complete your degree. It is an exciting and challenging time regardless of which stage you are at in your academic journey, and ultimately when you look back it should be something you are proud of. So to new students, welcome, to returning students, welcome back, and to you all: GOOD LUCK! 😊

Come Together

For much of the year, the campus is busy. Full of people, movement and voice. But now, it is quiet… the term is over, the marking almost complete and students and staff are taking much needed breaks. After next week’s graduations, it will be even quieter. For those still working and/or studying, the campus is a very different place.

This time of year is traditionally a time of reflection. Weighing up what went well, what could have gone better and what was a disaster. This year is no different, although the move to a new campus understandably features heavily. Some of the reflection is personal, some professional, some academic and in many ways, it is difficult to differentiate between the three. After all, each aspect is an intrinsic part of my identity. 

Over the year I have met lots of new people, both inside and outside the university. I have spent many hours in classrooms discussing all sorts of different criminological ideas, social problems and potential solutions, trying always to keep an open mind, to encourage academic discourse and avoid closing down conversation. I have spent hour upon hour reading student submissions, thinking how best to write feedback in a way that makes sense to the reader, that is critical, constructive and encouraging, but couched in such a way that the recipient is not left crushed. I listened to individuals talking about their personal and academic worries, concerns and challenges. In addition, I have spent days dealing with suspected academic misconduct and disciplinary hearings.

In all of these different activities I constantly attempt to allow space for everyone’s view to be heard, always with a focus on the individual, their dignity, human rights and social justice. After more than a decade in academia (and even more decades on earth!) it is clear to me that as humans we don’t make life easy for ourselves or others. The intense individual and societal challenges many of us face on an ongoing basis are too often brushed aside as unimportant or irrelevant. In this way, profound issues such as mental and/or physical ill health, social deprivation, racism, misogyny, disablism, homophobia, ageism and many others, are simply swept aside, as inconsequential, to the matters at hand.

Despite long standing attempts by politicians, the media and other commentators to present these serious and damaging challenges as individual failings, it is evident that structural and institutional forces are at play.  When social problems are continually presented as poor management and failure on the part of individuals, blame soon follows and people turn on each other. Here’s some examples:

Q. “You can’t get a job?”

A “You must be lazy?”

Q. “You’ve got a job but can’t afford to feed your family?

A. “You must be a poor parent who wastes money”

Q. “You’ve been excluded from school?”

A. “You need to learn how to behave?”

Q. “You can’t find a job or housing since you came out of prison?”

A. “You should have thought of that before you did the crime”

Each of these questions and answers sees individuals as the problem. There is no acknowledgement that in twenty-first century Britain, there is clear evidence that even those with jobs may struggle to pay their rent and feed their families. That those who are looking for work may struggle with the forces of racism, sexism, disablism and so on. That the reasons for criminality are complex and multi-faceted, but it is much easier to parrot the line “you’ve done the crime, now do the time” than try and resolve them.

This entry has been rather rambling, but my concluding thought is, if we want to make better society for all, then we have to work together on these immense social problems. Rather than focus on blame, time to focus on collective solutions.  

Who cares what I think?

The other week, I went for a meal with a friend. The food was lovely, the staff and environment welcoming and friendly and company, fabulous. A couple of days later I was thinking about that evening and I wondered why I had not felt the need to write some positive feedback on google, or similar. The answer was because I felt that I and my dining companion, had expressed our pleasure both in word and deed (the plates were clean!). Thus, the relationship between diners and restaurant staff had been overwhelmingly positive and this had been expressed by both.   

However, wherever we go nowadays, we are regularly confronted by requests for feedback; “how is my driving?”, “did you enjoy your meal?” “would you recommend our services to others”? Often these questions are accompanied by Likert scales, so we can record our opinion on almost everything. Sometimes we might take some time to consider the options, other times we might just tick random boxes, more usually (if I’m anything to go by) I just don’t engage with such requests. Despite their often-jolly appearance, these questions are not harmless, they have an impact, most usually to measure individuals’ performances.  

Whether we engage with such requests or not, we do not question whether we are well-placed to judge. So, for instance, as a driver of probably one of the smallest cars on the market (that’s me!), I’m expected to be able to mark the driver of a lorry. Or someone, who has the cooking know-how of a small child (I speak for myself again!) is expected to form an opinion on a dish prepared by a trained chef, these questions are hardly fair. More importantly, my answers are meaningless; whilst I might respond “the lorry appeared to take the corner a bit wide”, I have neither knowledge or understanding of the turning circle of a 32-tonne lorry. Similarly, my thoughts about the heat of a Bangladeshi biryani or the sweetness of a mille-feuille is neither here nor there. Given I can neither drive a lorry nor cook these wonderful dishes, who am I to voice an opinion?

Of course, there are times when it is necessary to voice an opinion, the lorry driver is behaving in a dangerous manner liable to cause an accident, or the restaurant is serving rancid or rotten food; both scenarios likely to involve serious harm. However, these concerns would need to be raised immediately, either by alerting the police (in the case of the lorry) or the management of the restaurant. In the case of the latter, you may also feel it necessary to contact environmental health if you felt that your complaint had not been addressed or you had concerns about the hygiene of the restaurant in general. However, these types of problems are largely outside the feedback requested.

In many of the scenarios/environments we are asked to comment on, we are in a relationship with the other party. Take the restaurant; if I am friendly and polite to the staff, I can expect a reciprocal relationship. If I am rude and aggressive, is it any wonder staff behave in a different way. They are constrained by their professions to focus on customer service, but this should not lay them open to abuse. Whilst the old adage “the customer is always right” might be an excellent baseline, it is not possible for this always to be the case. As someone who has spent a previous lifetime working in retail, sometimes the customer can be obtuse, rude or even downright, ignorant and abusive.  Adherence to such an adage, at all costs, can only open the way for abuse.

But what about those feedback forms? On a bad day, in a rash moment, or because I’m bored, I decide to complete one of these forms. The waiter kept me waiting, the food was too spicy, I didn’t like the feedback I was given on my job application, my essay was critiqued, my teeth haven’t been flossed regularly, I didn’t like the book recommended to me by the librarian or the book seller, I can’t believe my line manager has turned down my application for annual leave. I can easily demonstrate my unhappiness with the situation with a few judiciously placed ticks, circles or smiley/sad faces. Can I say the waiter, the chef, the HR professional, the lecturer, the dentist, the librarian, the book seller and my line manager are performing poorly? Can I say they are unprofessional, unprepared, untrained, lacking in knowledge or skills or just plain wrong? And if I do, is that fair or just? Furthermore, am I happy to be subject to the same judgement from people who do not share my experiences; professional or otherwise? Remember too much of this bad feedback, however flippant and lacking in evidence it may be, may lead to disciplinary action, including dismissal.

There is an oft-cited, albeit crude, truth: “Opinions are like arseholes; everyone has one”! Ultimately, whether we choose to share (either) in public is up to us! Think carefully before ticking those boxes and encourage others to do the same. Who knows, someone may well be ticking boxes about you!

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